Conference on Displacement and Reconciliation (Day 1 report)

Posted: June 10, 2011 by Rex Brynen in conferences
Tags: , ,

At the moment I’m attending an excellent conference in Ottawa organized by Megan Bradley at Saint Paul University on “Displacement and Reconciliation.” The conference has panels on both the Palestinians and the broader Middle East tomorrow, but most of the two-day event will examine issues of forced displacement, transitional justice, repatriation, reparations, and reconciliation in a broad global context and with the objective of fostering durable solutions to the situation of refugees and IDPs. Among the cases to be explored are those of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sri Lanka, Timor Leste, the Great Lakes region, Kenya, northern Uganda, Vietnam, the Koreas, Columbia, and elsewhere.

You’ll find below a variety of comments, reflections, and observations arising from the conference that might relate to the Palestinian refugee issue. Obviously, the viewing the conference through a Palestinian-centric lens only captures a small portion of the very rich discussions. On the other hand, there’s only so much that I can liveblog, and this is after all the Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet blog.

Also, don’t expect too much integration of the various points below into a coherent overall account. If I was to hold off posting until I had an opportunity to synthesize everything, I would never get around to posting!

* * *

 The first panel of the conference dealt with “conceptual links and theoretical insights” on displacement, transitional justice, and reconciliation.

  • James Milner (Carleton University) highlighted the linkage between protracted displacement and conflict (radicalization, armed refugees and spoilers, the dangers of unsustainable early refugee returns, cross-border issues). Certainly, many analysts of the Middle East could highlight the role of Palestinian refugees in the Palestinian armed struggle. However, most Palestinians would not see diaspora-based armed struggles as undermining peace, but rather as advancing the principle of Palestinian self-determination upon which any sustainable solution must be based. This highlights the contested conceptual character of both “peace” (is it just an absence of violence, or does it relate to human rights and broader issues of social justice) and spoiler (the PLO was considered by some as a “spoiler” —until the early 1990s, when suddenly the same movement was considered a fundamental foundation of the peace process itself).
  • Where does reconciliation fit with the priorities of achieving a solution? Is it an end in itself, or a means of achieving other ends? How important is it to sustainable peace?
  • Can human capacity development among refugees help to prepare for a more effective and sustainable transition to peace? Although the point was first raised in the conference presentations in the context of refugees in Africa, it is a point that UNRWA often makes about the long term value of its investments in Palestinian health and education.
  • Vern Neufeld Redekop (Saint Paul University) highlighted the many conceptual dimensions of forced displacement. One aspect that he highlighted was that the costs of displacement to victims include both interior and exterior dimensions (otherwise understood, perhaps, as intangible and tangible suffering and losses), as well as individual and collective ones. The typology seems a useful one for thinking about the many ways that the Nakba has affected Palestinians.
  • Anneke Smit (University of Windsor) looked at the impact of property restitution on conflict resolution. She noted the growing consensus on the property rights of refugees and IDPs, including the right of property restitution. Property compensation is increasingly seen as the second-best solution, to be used only when restitution is not possible. She also noted that the legal principles show insufficient recognition of the impact of “facts on the ground” and the passage of time. She argued for a more holistic approach to the issue that didn’t just focus on property restitution (and refugee return), but rather looked at the broad range of elements that might be part of a durable solution. This issue, of course, is a key debate in approaches to the Palestinian refugee issue, with some analysts favouring a “rights-based“ approach that stresses return and restitution, and others emphasizing “pragmatic” that stresses the importance of achievable compromise.
  • One commentator raised the paradox that there is so much focus on property restitution and compensation, but typically less emphasis on compensation/reparations for other kinds of loss (such as death and physical injury).
  • Another commentator raised the important issue of how to balance the long-term issues of reconciliation, with the immediate short-term operational pressures in the field and on the ground. Several speakers also raised the issue of stove-piping and disconnects within the UN and other humanitarian, developmental, human rights, political, and other organizations. These two sets of dynamics, I think, become mutually reinforcing, with short-term pressures and differences in organizational mandates and priorities compounding each other.
  • In all of these discussions, I wondered about the issue of case selection. Scholars are often inclined to believe, normatively and theoretically, that reconciliation, repatriation, and transitional justice are important contributions to long-term peace. However, we rarely discuss the cases where “peace” was achieved without these being priorities. In post-WWII Western Europe, for example—arguably the most successful case of conflict transformation in modern history, albeit one that took 50 years—the new order was often built on accepting forced displacement in a broader context of force majeure, realpolitik, and external (Soviet) threat. Moreover, reconciliation was largely a top-down, engineered process. Certainly it was a different era, but what are the analytical implications of the European experience?
  • Also it is probably important to address cases where there appears to be a real peace versus justice dilemma, such that pursuit of one might actually undermine the other in the short and medium term. This isn’t to say, of course, that I think that reconciliation and transitional justice are unimportant. Clearly they are, or can be. However I do think it is useful to look at these issues through a critical lens, and to avoid cookie-cutter approaches that assume universal dynamics in which “all good things go together.”

The second panel offered three case studies of reconciliation, transitional justice, and durable solutions to displacement. These focused on Bosnia (Humera Haider, University of Birmingham), Sri Lanka (Vellaithamby Ameerdeen, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka), and Timor Leste (IOM).

  • In Bosnia, after a slow start, implementation of the Dayton Agreement finally saw substantial degrees of “minority return” (roughly half a million of a million returnees) and property restitution. However, some of this return was limited or temporary. Also, returnees face a variety of political, social, and economic challenges. This can serve to increase (rather decrease) ethnic tensions.
  • Some economic reintegration efforts in Bosnia have sought to create functional cross-ethnic links, and some social reintegration efforts have sought to incorporate economic elements.
  • What is the relationship between micro-level confidence-building measures (what, in the Israeli-Palestinian context were once called “people-to-people” activities) and macro-level process of negotiation and conflict? Do they really reinforce each other? When do the former prove to be durable, and help to dampen down sporadic tensions at the macro level? To what extent are the former possible or useful in the absence of the latter? What role does national and communal leadership play in this?
  • The presentation on Sri Lanka highlighted some of these problems, with the “macro” problems of limited political reform and political devolution and the key role of the Sri Lankan military in Tamil areas aggravate the “micro” challenges of repatriation, local communal competition, etc.
  • In Timor Leste, the Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation (CAVR) played an important role in enabling truth-telling, historical memory, and forgiveness. Partly this reflected a positive view of the value of truth and reconciliation, and partly it reflected the political reality that there was little enthusiasm for legal prosecution of Indonesian officials, nor was it advisable for the nascent state of Timor Leste to antagonize its powerful Indonesian neighbour. (Reconciliation later became something of a negative term after the 2006 political crisis, with the public accusing the political/military elites of a failure to themselves reconcile.)
  • Reconciliation and truth-telling are not in of themselves sufficient, given the important of social, political, and economic context.

The third panel examined issues of reconciliation, peacebuilding, and the resolution of displacement in the African context, with case studies from the Great Lakes region (Odomora Mubangizi, Arrupe College, Harare), Kenya (Paige Morrow, formerly at the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights), and Uganda (Pius Ojara, Refugee Law Project, Kampala).

  • Is property restitution a particularly Western concept? One speaker argued that it was. Certainly, real property rights are deeply embedded in Western law and capitalism. However, even if they aren’t universal, they are certainly commonplace, and extend to many areas of the non-Western world, including the Middle East.
  • Do multigenerational conflicts have important dynamics that differ in important respects from more recent displacements?
  • Do refugee camps create longer-term dependencies? In what ways are the characteristics of Palestinian refugee camps and camp services similar to or different from camp experiences and effects elsewhere?
  • How does the reconciliation of conflicts arising from mass ethnic cleansing differ from forced displacements that are related to more localized confrontations?
  • Reconciliation presumes both polarization and the ability of people to reset their internal frames of analysis and perspective. The process isn’t just about dialogue, but about creating structures and spaces to sustain that dialogue.
  • It is important that people feel that they have some voice, and that there is some mechanism whereby they can have their grievances heard.
  • How can self-identities and narratives shift in a way that makes reconciliation with the other easier?
Day 2 details to follow soon…

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